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Biophilia centre stage as Griffith pulls civil engineering into the 21st century

Dr Cheryl Desha
Dr Cheryl Desha

Civil engineering is getting a radical green makeover at Brisbane’s Griffith University, with the launch of a new program that puts biophilia and sustainability at the core of the curriculum.

Dr Cheryl Desha will lead the program, which initially expects to enrol 200 students for 2017.

She said the program aimed to produce graduates with 21st century knowledge and skills “ready to take on the world”, which means a meeting of spatial information technology with smart buildings and infrastructure, biophilic urbanism and energy efficiency.

Dr Desha told The Fifth Estate that over the last few decades there has been a tension between what civil engineers are taught and the 21st century systems thinking approach, new information systems and awareness of environmental consequences.

The aim of the new program is to create a curriculum that equips future civil engineers to design in that context of holistic sustainability.

An environmental engineer by training, Dr Desha said curriculums to date had been “tinkering around the edges, adding units and topics rather than reframing how we design the built environment”.

In the new way of thinking, it’s not just about adding a green roof or a green wall as a bolt-on, it’s about engineers addressing how the skin of a building can relate to the built environment so it acts to mitigate climate change impacts, and how to use biophilic design to deliver passive cooling and facade insulation.

“It is a transformative re-think in the way we do engineering,” Dr Desha said.

Because civil engineering is the first of the engineering disciplines, historically, it forms the foundation for all the other disciplines.

“When we shift that [civil discipline] we are contributing to a shift of all the other engineering curriculums.”

There will also be a strong biophilic research agenda around how to create nature-loving cities, and how to use nature to promote health and wellbeing beyond just adding parks and gardens. It’s about trying to use nature both inside and outside buildings to increase wellbeing.

In terms of how this plays out on the practical level, Dr Desha said engineers needed to be part of the early design conversations, along with the architect and the landscape architect.

They are the third element, with more to contribute than just being called in for specific consulting tasks.

Engineers need to “get messy”, she said.

What they bring to the early stage design conversation is the knowledge of technical aspects, such as the pedestals that will hold up a green roof.

Often, she said, it was those technical components not being adequately addressed in the early design stages that undermine results.

Closer relationship with architects and industry

The new civil program will also be closely aligned with an initiative to implement architectural engineering.

Deputy chairman of Arup Tristram Carfrae was guest speaker at this week’s program launch.

He said over the past few years there had been a lack of connection between industry and academia.

“I am delighted that the Griffith University engineering program is getting a greater input from members of industry, including my colleagues from Arup, and also that they are considering offering an engineering course with an architectural major,” he said.

“It is also important that engineers understand more about architecture, and architects understand more about engineering. The big problems of this century will be solved by people who can think holistically in addressing all sides of the problems that we face.”

Working on diversity

The new program also has a social sustainability aspect. One of the key performance indicators for the program is to have 50 per cent female students.

Dr Desha said she had become increasingly aware of the importance of women being in the profession.

Head of the School of Engineering Professor Geoff Tansley said engineering employers were having problems meeting their gender balance.

“Companies are being beaten to the female graduates. They are in huge demand,” he said.

“We need to propagate a message that highlights what we could achieve if women and men felt equally welcomed and appreciated in STEM professions.”

The university is also aiming to grow the proportion of students of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.

Currently, there are 14 ATSI students studying engineering, four of them female students undertaking honours in civil engineering, electronic and biomedical engineering and electronic and computer engineering.

Professor Tansley said the school’s aim was to build a “critical mass” of Indigenous students.

“When we have that mass they will feel like they are a part of the community,” he said.

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Comments

3 Responses to “Biophilia centre stage as Griffith pulls civil engineering into the 21st century”

  • David A HOOD AM says:

    This will be a groundbreaking advancement in engineering education. Congratulations Cheryl Desha, and Griffith University, for taking this initiative.

  • Mary Ann Jackson says:

    As I am sure Nicholas Loder would support, it would be fabulous if the ‘social sustainability’ aspect of the course extended to Universal Design, designing civil infrastructure to ensure accessibility etc etc.

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Oh I so love this! For its inclusiveness, interdiciplinarian approach and the ‘third element’ involvement of civil engineers. Bodes well for the future.

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